Catherine Havasi

For making computers better listeners.

Catherine Havasi
(not-so) Impossible Man: Catherine Havasi’s software company, Luminoso, is bridging the gap between machine and human communication—getting us one step closer to a real-life C3P0. [Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd., courtesy of Everett, Everett Collection]

As sophisticated as artificial intelligence has become, computers still struggle to grasp the nuances of human language. Earlier this year, Catherine Havasi’s software company, Luminoso, introduced Compass, a platform that helps machines better interpret written human communication. The technology is already being used by companies such as Sony and Intel to automatically analyze enormous volumes of customer feedback from tweets, survey forms, and other digital media. “When people communicate, they rely on this huge body of unspoken assumptions about the world–things I know, things I assume you know,” says Havasi. “I’ve always been interested in helping computers understand people the way people understand people.” As Luminoso’s algorithms continue to listen and learn, the machines will only get smarter–and so will Havasi’s clients.


Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

I do my best thinking when I’m walking around somewhere green and somewhere beautiful. For me, getting out of the office is very important. Another thing that’s important to me is to expose myself to things that I’m not used to working with. Sometimes it’s travel. Sometimes it’s finding a new album or a new piece of music. But really getting out there and exposing myself to something new, even if it’s completely unrelated to something I’m stuck on, will often help me get through that block.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

I’m a big fan of the House Theater in Chicago (@thehousetheatre) and perhaps predictably London’s Punchdrunk (@PunchdrunkUK), both for pushing the limits of what theater is and what theater can do and where theater can be. The people who tweet micro-fiction are very interesting. It’s a nice way to see something new during the day.

How do you keep track of everything you have to do?

I have a very complicated organizational system. I use a combination of an application called Remember The Milk, Evernote, and a system of Google filters. I sort my emails by task and only address a given type of email at a certain time of day. That helps with the idea that email can be very all-consuming. There will always be email. There will always be people who want to schedule things with you. If you’re constantly trying to play whack-a-mole with your email you’re never going to get anything done.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

I’m a theater junkie. It’s actually how I got into A.I. I was interested in trying to do control systems for technical aspects of theater so that we could essentially–this was a long time ago and this has certainly been done by now–free the concept of theater from being in a particular box to something that could be out in a space. I got a book to help with the theater production stuff and half of the book was on neural networks. And one day I got bored and read the second half of the book. I found the concepts very intriguing. I also met most of my cofounders during a theater production of Star Wars, not at the MIT Media Lab.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

My good friend and previous cofounder Dan Zaharopol does amazing and tireless work helping underserved kids in New York with talent in mathematics and is incredibly inspiring.


About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things. Find me here: Twitter: @johnpaul Instagram: @feralcatcolonist